Childhood bullying tied to psychosis later

"Interventions against bullying should start early, in primary school, to prevent long-term serious effects on children’s mental health," says Dieter Wolke. (Credit: Cavale Doom/Flickr)

Children who are exposed to bullying—whether as victims or perpetrators—may have an increased risk of psychotic experiences in adulthood.

For a new study, researchers assessed a cohort of UK children from birth and found that some groups are almost five times more likely to suffer from psychotic episodes at the age of 18—even when controlling for external factors such as family factors or pre-existing behavior problems.


Published in Psychological Medicine, the findings show that not only children who were bullied over a number of years (chronic victims), but also those who were the bullies themselves in primary school are up to four and a half times more likely to suffer from psychotic experiences by the age of 18.

Equally concerning is that those children who only experienced bullying for brief periods are also at increased risk for psychotic experiences.

“Psychotic experiences” include hearing voices and seeing things that are not there and paranoia. These experiences, if persistent, are highly distressing and disruptive to everyday life. They are diagnosed by GPs or psychiatrists as “psychotic disorders” such as schizophrenia . Exact diagnosis is difficult and requires careful assessment.

“We want to eradicate the myth that bullying at a young age could be viewed as a harmless rite of passage that everyone goes through,” says Dieter Wolke, professor at the University of Warwick. “It casts a long shadow over a person’s life and can have serious consequences for mental health”

Act now to end bullying

“These numbers show exactly how much childhood bullying can impact on psychosis in adult life. It strengthens on the evidence base that reducing bullying in childhood could substantially reduce mental health problems. The benefit to society would be huge, but of course, the greatest benefit would be to the individual.”

Wolke and colleagues have previously looked at the impact of bullying on psychotic symptoms in 12-year-olds, and there have been a range of short term studies that confirm the relation between being a victim of bullying and psychotic symptoms.

The new study, however, reports the long term impact of being involved in bullying during childhood—whether victim, bully, or bully-victim—on psychotic experiences in late adolescence or adulthood.

“The results show that interventions against bullying should start early, in primary school, to prevent long-term serious effects on children’s mental health,” Wolke says.

“This clearly isn’t something that can wait until secondary school to be resolved; the damage may already have been done.”

Source: University of Warwick